Indie is a mindset

Indie is the mindset of “I am going to make the best thing possible, on my terms, with the resources I have”

Best thing possible – Best for the audience, that means something specific, something well made for the people who care.

On my terms – Made in the way I can be proud of.

With the resources I have – Using what you already have or raising enough to get the job done. It doesn’t mean raising tons of funding, it doesn’t mean waiting around for things to line up.

Indie is the only way forward. The posts I write are for other animators and creators who are hungry and maybe a little impatient. It used to be that in order to get the chance to make things to run a show, direct a feature, make a short film you had to be picked. That usually meant you had to work really hard at a big company and prove yourself. Get to be a good enough animator and you’ll get the chance to be a director. Except it didn’t really work that way in the end. There are no Disney features directed by Ward Kimball or Mary Blair. Andres Deja, and Glen Keane had to leave Disney to really get the chance to make their own work. But beyond that if you want to work at these studios, and who doesn’t, being indie helps. It’s only through making things can we be noticed. The only way to be a creator these days is to create.


I do a post every Friday morning about making animation on your terms

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Development is not really a job

If you feel strongly about doing work for free than developing a show for broadcast is probably not the best path. I’m not an expert I haven’t been involved with a lot of development. If producer or creators say different go with their recommendations. I’m still learning.

From what I’ve gleaned much of development falls to the creator. You work on your own time on pitches. You might get a bit of development funding. That funding is better used to commission new work than pay your salary. Many producers defer payment on the productions they work on. The idea being when the show gets made when it’s a hit then you make back the hard work you put in.

This kind of system favours the well off the people with resources. Only some people can afford to spend months out of the year not making a paycheque. Fortunate people have the space to work evenings and weekends on creative projects.

I’m probably wrong about a lot of this. I’m not calling for a big change in the system. I want to talk with you the creators and animators. If you knew that the process would take years and you wouldn’t paid out for it would you still do it?


I do a post every Friday morning about trying to make indie animation

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Why a small audience is cooler

I’ve been continuing to write five days a week this month. It’s been an interesting experiment of what comes to mind when one has to write. I wish more people in animation committed to writing more consistently. There used to be so much great information written in blogs about animation. It costs almost nothing and you can publish whatever you want.

This week I’ve been thinking about the opportunity of the internet. I’ve been trying to share some hopefully helpful ideas about making stuff. My goal with indie animated is to convince more animators to make stuff on their own rather than go the traditional route.

If you pay attention to the development process for animated series they probably take on average about 5 years. For most show 5 years is probably a low estimate. That’s before the show gets made. This is what your signing up for if you want to make shows in the traditional method. If you want to pitch production companies and networks. It takes a long time. (There are definitely exceptions to this rule, I’m working on a show that took a year or so. From what I know it’s not normal. It’s safer to be pessimistic)

I’d rather be making things. We have the best distribution tool at our fingertips. If We want to make things we can just go and start building. I’d rather spend 5 years making things and building an audience. If you want to understand how creative businesses work on the internet read Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans.

“To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.”

 

“A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce.”

Kevin Kelly outlines the pretty simple math. If you can earn $100 profit from each true fan, 1000 true fans is $100 000 a year. This is how the business model of every blogger, youtuber, webcomic artist works. Seth Godin refers to this as the smallest vialble audience. We are seeking the smallest group of people that we need to keep doing what we’re doing. What’s great is that it’s smaller than we think. It’s much smaller than the number that Television Networks need. On television you’re constantly worried if you have the hit show or not. What’s your rating or ranking. What a relief it would be to try and focus on getting a small number of loyal followers.

We’re entering the era of the cult classic. Nothing is a super hit like we used to have. Everything is a cult classic. Difference is now the way to be successful is to make cult classics. We’ve figured out the distribution and marketing of making things for specific niche audiences. You don’t have to make a diluted version for the masses. So go on make something.


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Live Broadcast Method

Every once in awhile I get an interesting idea for an experiment. Since I don’t have the time to try it out I thought I would share them and see if anyone gets inspired.

Say your making an animated series I have this idea for a business model. Once a week livestream new episode – all day. Then make the archive available to paying subscribers. This way you lower the bar to entry letting people discover the show. But you also have monetization. It’s essentially a freemium model. Where everyone can have access for free. But if you want more the customer can pay. This could all be built with existing tools like YouTube live, Twitch, and Vimeo.

The hard part is finding the audience and finding the fans. It also brings up the question what kind of show do you have to make to get people to pay to watch it? Do you sell advertising during the live-stream? With the right show and the right audience it could work well.


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The choice between indie and established

I missed a few weeks of writing, and I feel a little bad about that. In the scheme of things it’s not a big deal. It’s still important, because for the last year I’ve tried to build trust. I’ve tried to say, “Every Friday. I’ll be here.” Thinking if I show up consistently with something to say, others might show up too.

In a small way that’s happened, and it keeps me going. I work very hard not to fall into traps, not worrying about metrics that will distract from what I’m trying to do. I was just listening to an interview with Srinivas Rao, he talked about how being an artist on social media comparing followers, views and likes, creates a status anxiety that in the end gets in the way of making creative work rather than entice it. So I try to focus on writing for a very small audience. If one person is waiting to read the blog or newsletter, that’s enough.

Making something creative is hard. Building an audience is hard. How hard it is has shaken the confidence in the premise of this blog. You too can make a series on your own. You know what, it’s still a good option. The real point is that it’s an option that didn’t use to be on the table. Not long ago it would have been nearly impossible to make animation without a studio, a distributor, and a lot of money. While all those things are still useful, you don’t need them as much.

The point I missed was that it would be somehow easier than the traditional method. Or intrinsically better. I think the truth is it’s just hard in a different way. Reaching an audience who cares about what you make will always be hard. Having distribution might help but it doesn’t solve the problem.

The point I want to keep making, is that you have a choice. If you want to make something, and you are willing to go through the hard parts (for a long time). You can just start making the thing. You can show up in front of an audience and show off what you’re making. We have the tools to make the work, tools to distribute it, and tools to make it a business. On the other hand, if you go the traditional route know that there’s an option, an alternative. That way you’re not blinded by being asked to make something. Do not make average work to please people.

With more options, with opportunity, it asks what you really want out of your work. If we know it’s going to be hard, and it might not work. Will we keep going?


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Film Crit Hulk and why shorts are meant for learning

I liked this Twitter thread from Film Crit Hulk about short films. Despite his name, Film Crit Hulk is one of the very best places to read film criticism and learn about storytelling and filmmaking. That’s why this thread is so good.

The thread made me think of is the place shorts have in our culture. Short fiction in any medium. Short stories, short comics, short films. The truth is people don’t seek out this work. The industry is too busy to seek them out. They might go a film festival. I don’t think audiences seek them out either. Yet, at the same time beginners are encouraged to make shorts. This gets to Hulk’s final point.

The purpose of most short films is to learn. Short projects are where you cut your teeth and learn. I encountered this situation earlier this week. Isaiah and I are in the middle of production our next short comic. It’s going slowly, we’re undermotivated so we had a call. We wanted to take a cold hard look at the project. What we came to is that we’re either making things to build an audience or we’re trying to make something good. It would easy to say that we’re trying to do both. When you’re trying to figure out your goals, stick to one. Having too many goals will split you in different directions. It became clear is that if we were interested in growing our audience we’d be working differently. One might make more content share more often. What we were focused on was making something good. More specifically it was about learning how to make something good. Getting better at storytelling, and finding a story we’re excited about. After we finish this project, learn from it and move to the next one.

Start with short fiction because it’s a great training ground. It’s a great training ground because you will falter and fail. The iteration, the feedback will make you better at what you do. It might seem ideal to start a big project now. Working on short projects gives you a taste of how much energy any project takes. When you have the experience of making many things, you can stare down a big project with a bit more confidence. Knowing you can see it through the other side.

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3 constraints on production

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I do a lot a of reading about project management. I hope to learn more, and make my projects better. One great series of videos is from the people at Basecamp. They go into how they structure their work. Basecamp is an interesting company because of how opinionated they are about what they prioritize. This got me thinking about what we prioritize in animation productions. What’s most important? What would it look like if we created culture based on these values?

I’ve figured that there are at least three constraints on production. These are the areas where we put our time and our budget. These are also the areas that cause our projects to become late and over budget. These constraints are like levers. Each production has to prioritize what’s most important, what the focus is, and what is least important. These three constraints are Schedule, Scope, and Execution.

Schedule

Schedule is the first constraint because at some point every project needs to get done. Schedule represents budget, because your budget is mostly how large of a crew you can have for a certain amount of time. While it is possible to raise more money, it is much harder to find extra time. Schedule is what can we get done in this fixed amount of time.

Scope

Scope is the creative constraint. How big will this project become? Scope is not just about deciding is this an epic or an indie drama. Scope can come down to every single shot of a film or show. Scope is about find is there “some version” of what we’re trying to do that fits the other constraints.

Execution

Execution is the craft and the quality we bring to the work. Like all the constraints it is dependent on the other two. Execution isn’t just about making something of the highest quality, because there’s no objective measure of that. It’s about finding the right quality for the project at hand.

All these constraints are dependent on each other. You have to decide what the priorities are.These elements are so interrelated that you can’t have all three. You have to rank them from most important to least important. For instance one production might value Scope, Execution, and Schedule. That kind of project might be a series of fantasy novels. They might be epic, and amazingly planned and well written, but you might die before you finish them.

For example a high budget feature film execution is high on the list. Pixar can’t dip below Pixar standard for it’s next feature. So where execution is the focus they modulate everything to that. They make a big schedule that gives them plenty of time. They make sure that the scope fits what they can do best. They might have a high level of scope but Pixar releases about one film a year. They don’t make three part films, they don’t make 4 hour films. They know the scope of their films. What they care about is telling a great heartfelt story, above all else.

The projects that I work on couldn’t be more different. When you work low budget everything is about schedule. If making the schedule is important than you need to be willing to sacrifice the execution and scope to make that schedule. We are lucky in that we’re working on our own stories. We can make choices to reduce the scope of an episode or scene in order to finish on time. That might be taking out an extra character or location. Having a complicated action take place off camera. These are all tools for reducing the scope. Then it comes to the execution or quality. The way I view quality is that we get the best we can get. I make sure there are no obvious mistakes, but for the large part I leave it to each artist to bring their best work. We lean toward things that are simple but animated well. Everything we do is made with consideration to the schedule.

In animation these kind of things get compartmentalized, it becomes someone else’s job. Managing constraints isn’t just the domain of the leadership. It isn’t up to the directors and producers that make these decisions. Choosing what you value, and what important creates a culture. Culture means that everyone is on the same page, everyone knows what to value. When culture isn’t built deliberately it grows on its own. Getting a team on the same page connects the team. When the team is connected they can focus on the work, and the work gets better. Indie animation isn’t going to be about individual vision, it’s going to be about the team you build, and what everyone brings to the table.


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